Learning is its own reward. Nothing I can say is better than that.


Learning is is own reward. Nothing I can say is better than that.

It’s a sage piece of advice given by Michael Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg, to those who wanted to make literature available to all. It was his life’s work, spanning 40 years until his passing last September. If you aren’t familiar with it, Project Gutenberg is one of the Internet’s longest running collaborative efforts. Though it didn’t take its current form until 1991, work on it started in the 70’s. From their General FAQ:

Project Gutenberg is a volunteer effort to digitize, archive, and distribute cultural works.

Their main focus is on literature, transcribing or digitizing works in the public domain for consumption by all, though they do host a few other cultural works. They currently offer over 38,000 free (as in free of charge and free as in freedom) ebooks themselves. If one expands to their sister and partner projects, the number goes over 100,000. It’s quite an achievement when one thinks that in 1991 the goal was to get one book done a month.

Obviously, the project gains its name from the Gutenberg Printing Press, which had an immeasurable impact on not just Western Civilization, but the entire world. The Gutenberg Project aims to continue the information explosion created by the moveable-type printing press. The idea was termed “Replicator Technology’ by Michael Hart, who noted once information is entered into the computer, it can be reproduced indefinitely and cheaply. Therefore, it becomes available to the world. They have several philosophical premises for the project:

  • Electronic Texts (Etexts) created by Project Gutenberg are to be made available in the simplest, easiest to use forms available.
  • The Project Gutenberg Etexts should cost so little that no one will really care how much they cost.
  • The Project Gutenberg Etexts should be so easily used that no one should ever have to care about how to use, read, quote and search them.

The group is in it for the long run, as well. While they provide a large number of formats, the general expectation is that all literature works be submitted in “Plain Vanilla ASCII’. Basically, they expect every computer and device be able to read and be able to display the files. File formats come and go in popularity, but plain text will be with us for a long time. As they state on the site:

We’re trying to build an archive that will last not only decades, but centuries.

They expect our grandchildren’s grandchildren be able to download these files for free and learn from the wisdom of the ages.

Go To Project Gutenberg

There is a concept in intellectual property law known as “sweat of the brow“. Basically, this doctrine states that copyright is created through the diligence put to during the creation of the work, and substantial originality is not necessarily required. According to Project Gutenberg, however, this has some interesting effects when applied to public domain works and, by extension, what they release. Simply scanning an old book in the public domain does not recreate an expired copyright.

However, there are a few things that will create a new copyright, such as translating to a new language or recording an audio performance. So, one can take a Project Gutenberg Etexts, create an audio recording and then claim copyright.

Some people decided to do something almost, but exactly not like the latter.

Enter LibriVox, whose tagline is “acoustical liberation of books in the public domain’.

LibriVox volunteers record chapters of books in the public domain and release the audio files back onto the net. Our goal is to make all public domain books available as free audio books.

Their fundamental principles are:

  • LibriVox is a non-commercial, non-profit and ad-free project
  • LibriVox donates its recordings to the public domain
  • LibriVox is powered by volunteers
  • LibriVox maintains a loose and open structure
  • LibriVox welcomes all volunteers from across the globe, in all languages

The project was started by Hugh McGuire in August 2005. Since then, heavily utilizing the works created by Project Gutenberg, over 3,500 volunteers have recorded over 5,000 audiobooks, all of which are placed in the public domain.

The projects name, LibriVox, is basically an amalgamation of two Latin words: “libri’ meaning book and “vox’ meaning voice. While it’s not really proper Latin, the resulting “word’ does roll off the tongue with a satisfying feel.

It really is a great project. The catalog of recorded works is impressive, but what is even more impressive is that this, like Project Gutenberg, is done entirely by volunteers. The site doesn’t even have any ads and is itself sports a Public Domain Certification.

But, what’s most interesting and most enjoyable for me is the mix of different people who participate. It’s all volunteers: the readers, proofers and team leaders. As for the readers, there are those who have smooth, professional sounding voices and those that… well… we’ll say “struggle’. But, it creates an interesting affect, as some book projects will have many different readers, from many different backgrounds and with different accents. It really adds an “of the people’ feel to the project. Plus, I find there’s nothing quite like curling up in a warm blanket, closing my eyes and listening to Peter Yearsley in one of the available versions of Kenneth Grahame‘s The Wind in the Willows. It feels like I’m six years old listening to my grandfather read me a bedtime story.

Mole, Rat, Badger and Mr. Toad are off on another adventure…